December 21, 2007

Digital Media, Games, and Open Access

by Nick Montfort · , 7:19 am

With regard to your request, I cannot agree to review for your journal right now. If [it] becomes an open access journal, I will be very glad to review articles for the journal.

Having written this in an email recently, I wanted to post about my reasoning and ask what Grand Text Auto readers, commenters, and bloggers think about this issue. Open access journals and other scholarly publishing issues are classic ivory tower matters, but my concern about restricting access to Grand-Text-Auto-like subjects has a lot to do with my concern for non-academic readers and commenters here, as well as academics who aren’t at major research universities with full access to journals. This includes people at small liberal arts colleges, even if they write award-winning papers, and independent scholars, even if they regularly keynote conferences and contribute authored and edited volumes to the academic discourse. It also includes game-makers, electronic literature authors, creators of digital art, and those who arrive here curious about digital media. Not to mention one of our six drivers.

I think there must be a few things that those of us who are part of the scholarly publishing process can do to foster an open-access future. The easiest thing that I’m able to think of is simply not volunteering our labor to lock academic writing away from the public.

For those not familiar with the journal review and publication process: Scholarly and scientific journals differ from many other sorts of publications. Authors are not paid – in some cases, they pay in the form of per-article fees or fees for color illustrations and extra content. Articles are reviewed by other academics who determine if they should be published; these reviewers are also not paid. The work that people do as researchers, writers, and reviewers is effectively subsidized by whatever institution supports these people as faculty, staff, or students. In the case of pay-for-access journals, the same institutions that indirectly pay for important labor on a journal also must pay the for-profit company that runs the journal in order to gain exclusive access (that is, access not available to the public) to the final outcome. This access doesn’t typically come in the form of a print journal these days, of course.

This process is one that I characterize as anti-publication. It may serve some credentialing purposes and help universities assess tenure and promotion cases, but it ends up restricting access to scholarly work rather than helping to publish that work, that is, helping to make it available to the public.

The may be several reasons that people choose to anti-publish their work, although bad faith must be the major one. In some fields there are few options for true publication that also contextualize one’s work and bring it to the attention of one’s colleagues. The best way to get word out about recent research to the subscribing elite may be, in these cases, through entrenched, well-known avenues for anti-publication. One could even argue that for esoteric, specialized fields that have no connection to the public (if there are such things), the lack of public access doesn’t matter.

This is hardly the case in digital media, where non-academics ranging from poets and artists to game-makers are working with academics to determine what the creative possibilities for computing can be. And there are suitable open-access journals in digital media, including Game Studies and Digital Humanities Quarterly.

When I made this rather easy decision, refusing to review an article for a for-profit, non-public journal, I was very much thinking of our not-entirely-academic discussion here on Grand Text Auto and about how I want to spend my time and effort fostering such conversations. I was also thinking that those of us who are academics dealing with digital media have the chance now to determine whether we’re going to become one of those public-irrelevant fields where anti-publication is the norm and we speak only to ourselves, or whether we want to speak to and learn from those creating and encountering poems, games, art, drama, writing, and other sorts of digital work outside the university.